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July 31, 2022

Sermon begins at 18:50

A sermon on Psalm 49 given on July 31, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church.

As we jump into the scripture reading for today, I want to draw your attention to a little subheading that isn’t actually a part of the psalm text, but is a note describing the text. This psalm is described as “of the Korahites.” Now, I didn’t know what exactly that meant, so I went digging. Come to find out there are three theories as to who Korah was and who these Korahites were who left behind several of our psalms. The first, and most widely accepted theory is that Korah was the great-grandson of Levi, the very first priest. This comes from a geneology in Exodus, Numbers, and 1 Chronicles. Now interestingly enough, one of the articles I was reading highlighted the meaning of this man’s name, Korah. Korah means “bald.” The Korahites might literally be translated, the bald ones. So, on behalf of the bald ones, I bring you today’s scripture reading. 



Psalm 49:

The Folly of Trust in Riches

To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.

1 Hear this, all you peoples;
   give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2 both low and high,
   rich and poor together.
3 My mouth shall speak wisdom;
   the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
4 I will incline my ear to a proverb;
   I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.


5 Why should I fear in times of trouble,
   when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth
   and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life;[a]
   there is no price one can give to God for it.
8 For the ransom of life is costly
   and can never suffice,
9 that one should live on forever
   and never see the Pit.


10 When we look at the wise, they die;
   fool and dolt perish together
   and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves[b] are their homes forever,
   their dwelling places to all generations,
   though they named lands their own.
12 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
   they are like the animals that perish.


13 Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
   the end of those[c] who are pleased with their lot. Selah
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
   Death shall be their shepherd;
straight to the grave they descend,[d]
   and their form shall waste away;
   Sheol shall be their home.[e]
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
   for he will receive me. Selah


16 Do not be afraid when some become rich,
   when the wealth of their houses increases.
17 For when they die they will carry nothing away;
   their wealth will not go down after them.
18 Though in their lifetime they count themselves happy
   —for you are praised when you do well for yourself—
19 they[f] will go to the company of their ancestors,
   who will never again see the light.
20 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
   they are like the animals that perish.




If you get one thing from this sermon this morning, I hope you come away with an appreciation for the power of quotation marks.


Quotation marks are powerful things. Let me say that again for dramatic effect. Quotation marks are powerful things. In twenty-first-century American English the unnecessary inclusion or the accidental omission of quotation marks can dramatically reframe how we read a sentence or interpret its meaning. Let’s the take the first category first; the unnecessary inclusion of quotation marks. 


On July 1, 2005, Bethany Keeley-Yonker started the blog  In her blog, Bethany captures and reports on the use of, you probably guessed it, unnecessary quotation marks. For over fifteen years, she found examples of public, written material, usually promotional in nature, that included quotation marks when quotation marks weren’t needed. She wrote on her first post that, “what I'm interested in here is quotation marks that appear for no reason. These often work to obscure the intended meaning to comic effect, at least if you're a punctuation nerd!


So, for our punctuation nerds this morning, I wanted to present a few examples:


Example 1:

Translation: Whatever they do to Honda’s they’re not exactly fixed when they leave


Example 2: 

Translation: Don’t buy sausage from this store, it’s old


Example 3: 

Translation: Don’t touch anything in this store, it’s unsanitary


Example 4: 

Translation: Never buy anything from that fireworks stand!


The second category of quotation-mark-mistakes is the omission of quotation marks. In the same way that including unnecessary quotation marks changes the meaning of a sentence, their omission can convey an entirely different message. 


Now our text this morning wasn’t written in twenty-first-century American English. The original language was ancient Hebrew which didn’t include things like quotation marks. But, let’s look at an example that might shift how we read this passage. 


Psalm 49:10 reads: When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.


This appears to make sense. Both the wise and the fool die. Everybody dies. And that’s what I thought this passage was saying until I came across a scholar who suggested we read the word “wise” with quotation marks around it. This would convey an ironic reading of the word “wise.” Now, we’d say it like this,


“When we look at the ‘wise’, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.”


This may seem like a trivial addition, but this verse fits with the logic of the rest of the passage if we make that change. In the first way of reading, we understand the psalmist to be saying that everybody dies. Don’t worry about those boastful rich people, we’re all going to the same place. 


But, in the second reading, by including those quotation marks and reading the “wise” as an ironic depiction, we can understand the psalmist to be only referring to the fool, the dolt, the self-proclaimed, ironically conveyed “wise” who are destined for the Pit and they have “their graves as their homes forever.” 


Now, neither of those interpretations are at odds with what other authors and passages seem to be saying about the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible. Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes appears to be saying that all will die and come to the same fate. In Ecclesiastes 9:5, we read: “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost.” Qohelet doesn’t distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, or the wise and the foolish. The claim, and the advice, is simply that we will all die, so “eat, drink, and be merry” before you do. 


Now, without those quotation marks to symbolize the irony of the word “wise,” we might take this passage to be advising the same approach. But, if we keep reading to verse 15, we find the context clue that hints at our ironic, and therefore differentiated reading. Yes, Psalm 49 talks extensively about the fool and their fate, but verse 15 reads: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”


That’s the game changer for understanding the distinction our psalmist is trying to create. The fool, the dolt, the boastful, the rich, the “wise,” they are bound for death, for wasting away. Like the animals, they perish.


But, the people in earshot of this psalm have a different fate. It isn’t expounded upon or precisely detailed, but with broad brush strokes it’s articulated that the hearers and the readers of this psalm will be received by God. 


Now, thus far. You may be thinking that this sermon is going to be about the difference between the ultimate, eternal fate of the wise and the foolish, or the righteous and the wicked.

There’s a whole conversation here about the afterlife in early Judaism, and the differing schools of thought that are present in the Hebrew Bible. 


But for today, I want to put that discussion to the side except for the fact that this is a perfect example of something we speak about in Confirmation about how to read the Bible. Sometimes the Bible is presented as seamlessly congruent text that speaks as one voice. But, that’s not always the most helpful or accurate way of approaching scripture. Our passage, psalm 49, and the passage I quoted from Ecclesiastes appear to be saying different things about the Hebrew people of their time might expect when it comes to what happens when we die.


One could argue that the heart of this text is about the afterlife, but the way it seeks to comfort and encourage and challenge its audience is very much centered on THIS LIFE. The recipients of this psalm are in one group and apparently aren’t rich. The rich it seems are in a different group. The occasion of this psalm must have been precisely that there are not-rich people concerned about the goodness of God in relationship to the boastful and presumably rich they see all around them. Call it conspicuous consumption or whatever you will, but there is a group of people in ancient Israel trying to buy or acquire happiness or status or security. 


Now, the distinction in terms of the afterlife is a device our psalmist is using and it serves to articulate the difference between the death of the fool and the life of the audience. In this distinction, we see the way of death and the way of life. There is a way of living that leads to death. And there is a way of living that leads to life.


To the writer of this psalm, the way of death is simple. When we trust wealth, or accomplishment, or power, or status, or control, when we boast or brag or take pride in our limited human doings, we are marching down the road that leads to Sheol, the ancient Hebrew concept of the underworld. No matter how successful we are or how much we achieve, it all inevitably wastes away. 


The way to life is equally as simple. It’s trust. It’s trust in the divine. It’s trust that something bigger than what you can perceive or comprehend is at work in the world. It’s a trust that the forces you see “winning” in this life aren’t actually “ahead” in any meaningful way. It’s a trust that generosity, and kindness, and compassion, and hope are actually better ways to live than the bottom-line, scarcity thinking that leads chasing our own security.

I like to hike at Hibernia park out toward Coatesville/Wagontown. If you park at one of the blue trail and walk North, there’s this tree hanging over the West Brandywine Creek. Something obviously happened to this tree. It’s doesn’t appear to be growing up like all the other trees.  And whatever happened to it robbed this tree of it’s most impressive, perfect, picturesque future. This tree won’t see the top of the wooded canopy again. It won’t be as impressive or even live as long as it’s neighboring trees who haven’t had the same kind of traumatic experience. When I think about this tree, there’s a quote by Jenny Odell that runs through my head. Odell said “Nature is inherently optimistic.” 


Now, if I was that tree, it would be really easy to give up. I can’t be like all these other successful, strong, robust looking trees. Why even try? But the tree didn’t give up. If you look, you can see all these little shootscoming out from the sides of the tree. They’re all reaching for the sunlight and growing their leaves and expanding their woody limbs. And they’re doing this because for this tree, the way of life and growth and setbacks and more life and growth and potentially more setbacks is worth pursuing. 


I think this is a part of what it means to walk the way of life. It’s a deep optimism, a deep trust and a deep hope. It’s not necessarily a trust that things will always go our way. They won’t. But, it’s a trust in life itself that includes the ups and the downs. 


Side note: I will be honest and say that I had originally pictured a tree I’ve passed many times in the Harmony Hill Nature Area in Downingtown. It was another good example of a tree not giving up after it had been mostly knocked down. I had passed it numerous times over the years and it was growing strong, but when I went out Thursday to grab a picture of it, the tree had been completely knocked down and was dead. I think the Illustration still works.

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.


The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man.


The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy for what they called his “misfortune.”

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.


The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.


What would look like to live with that kind of equanimity? What would it look like to trust life, to trust God, that much? The secret of the farmer, the secret of the Harmony Hill tree, and the secret of our psalmist are all the same. Their trust was not that God or fate would bless all their circumstances. In fact, they all lived through what we would call difficult circumstances. Their trust was in something deeper. They trusted that the path of life was worth continuing down, without labeling the momentary circumstances as “good” or “bad.”


Very rarely, however, does our culture encourage us in this way of life. I started ministry working with students for the first few years and then had several positions where I wasn’t directly involved with students for a few years. I started working with our students at First Pres a year ago and it’s been unsettling to be reminded how much they wrestle with trying to find their version of “success.” 


If you want to site mental health statistics or suicide rates, or just ask them about their plans for the future, you can see that our students carry the weight of a society locked in on the way of death. 


Eric Minton claims, in his book It’s Not You, It’s Everything that our young people are the ones with the good sense not to pretend that everything going on around us is “normal.” Minton points out that the hyper-competitive, consumption-driven, individualistic society these students are growing up in teaches them that they are indeed alone. They have to figure it out for themselves. They have to get into the right school and pick the right career and find the right partner. And Minton argues that the adults who think this is normal have simply internalized this hyper-competitive, consumption-driven, individualistic way of being in the world. 


I want to look at two quotes that exemplify this idea. They’re almost cliché by now, but I think they illustrate this point.


In a commencement address in 2014, the actor and comedian Jim Carrey said this, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.” 


In 2005 60 Minutes interview, the legendary quarterback Tom Brady said, “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, “Hey man, this is what is.” I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?” (keep the slide up, but end the text here)


The interviewer then asked, “What’s the answer?”


And Brady responded, “ I wish I knew. I wish I knew.”


By now, Brady has won 7 Super Bowls, and in this past off-season he retired to give more time to his family. But, one month later, he announced that he was un-retiring and coming back for another year. I can’t know what’s going on in Tom Brady’s head, but I’d bet he’s still trying to figure out the answer to that question, “what else is there?”


So, like Tom Brady, we are left to ask, what is the alternative?  Like fish in water, we swim in an ocean of achievement, possession, competition, consumption, individualism, and …. What would it even look like to walk down and live out the way of life. 


Our first passage this morning in Colossians sheds a little light on how we might begin. I want to read part of it again because it’s so beautiful. Verse 12 starts, “12 Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord[f] has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”


Compassion. Kindness. Humility. Meekness. Patience. Not exactly things that you would put on a resume. But they are words I think we’d hope to be mentioned in our eulogy. All these things center on our relationships with other people. The writer of Colossians lays out way of life and it’s all about how we live with and among other people. That list doesn’t include anything related to securing, or acquiring, or accomplishing, and the mode of relationship isn’t competition, it’s harmony. How do we live in harmony.


So, when our teenagers are trying to figure out what life is about. Or when Jim Carrey or Tom Brady are asking, “What else is there?” Or when the Hebrew audience to our psalm is asking, what about those boastful rich people. The psalmist, the writer of Colossians, and the witness of many people throughout the ages is: It’s about relationship. 


16 Do not be afraid when some become rich, 
   when the wealth of their houses increases.
18 Though in their lifetime they count themselves happy
   —for you are praised when you do well for yourself—
20 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
   they are like the animals that perish.


The way of death is clear. But the way of life asks certain questions of us. 


Can you live together in harmony? Are you compassionate, do you suffer with others? Are you kind, do you treat others as you would them treat you? Are you humble, and recognize your place with and among the rest of Creation? Are you meek, do you refrain from dominating or using your power over others? Are you patient, do you recognize the limits of our common humanity? Do you forgive, and meet offense or misstep with grace and love?


The call to action today, is really a call for perception and discernment. Can we begin to see the ‘way of death’ playing out around us? Ca we begin to notice how we as individuals, or as a church, or as a culture, or a country participate in this way of death. And can begin to recognize the ‘way of life’ the psalmist and the writer of Colossians are sketching for us? 


Can we bet our lives on the premise that no act of love or self-giving is lost or somehow meaningless. But as the psalmist reminds us. God receives every such act.  


Can we begin to participate with the living, loving, liberating, and life-giving God these passages attest to. Can we lean into Love’s courage and sow the seeds of life around us. Can we learn to sow more today than we did yesterday. 


May it be so. 



Two Ways 

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